Towards a New Family

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byKim Ae-ran

The family is the most powerful ideological institution everywhere. Yet, the attachment to family that most Koreans have is stronger than in many other societies. One can easily assume that the distinctive progression of modern Korean history could have resulted in a peculiarly strong attachment to family. The constant crisis of consciousness resulting from colonization and war experiences led many heads of families to die and many families to be scattered and feel the sorrow of parting. This made Koreans regard the stable family as the most important criterion of their happiness. Furthermore, although it might be said to be an imagined community, the pride in a homogeneous nation and a common bloodline with five thousand years of history, which Korean people firmly believe, has constituted a pure blood ideology unique to Korea. This ideology directly or indirectly contributed to the expansion of familism. The influence of the filial piety particular to Confucianism culture is also noteworthy. Family has been recognized as a small nation or even a small state in Korea. In short, it might be said that the family in Korean society has constantly kept its position as a medium for teaching community spirit and conventional gender roles.

However, since the 1990s, the traditional family model as an ideological institution in Korean society has hit a crisis. Due to the changed characteristics of capitalism, the traditional family model is now losing its dominance.

The primary reason for this is because of the changes in daily life caused by the extensive prosperity of cultural and IT industries. Korean capitalism after 1990 has made large profits primarily through its cultural industries: popular movies, the Internet, and pop culture icons. During this time in Frederick Jameson’s terms, Korea entered a phase of “late capitalism” or “consumerism.” There is various evidence that Korean cultural industries are flourishing: the number of people using cellular phones and the Internet ranks first in the world; almost onethird of the total population crowds into theaters to see Korean movies; the annual income of certain stars equals that of average corporations; and so forth. This social change necessarily influenced the process of subject formation, creating antisocial individuals who are significant social problems today. They enjoy going to see movies by themselves, communicating with others only through the Internet, and finding refuge in the virtual world of computer games and movies in order to escape mundane daily life. As this narcissistic culture becomes more dominant in Korea, individuals who avoid being a part of a traditional family unit are no longer rare.


1 Waltz for Three Yun I-Hyeong, Moonji Publishing, 2007 416p, ISBN 978-89-320-1809-6
2 Her Use of Tears Chun Woon-young, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2008, 272p, ISBN 978-89-364-3703-9 03810
3 A Cold Yoon Sunghee, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2008, 275p, ISBN 978-89-364-3700-8 03810
4 Run, Pop, Run! Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc., 2008 269p, ISBN 978-89-364-3690-2 03810
5 A Pool of Saliva Kim Ae-ran, Moonji Publishing, 2008 309p, ISBN 978-89-320-1804-0 03810
6 Restless Kang Young-sook, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2002, 304p ISBN 978-89-8281-467-1 03810
7 Farewell to the Circus Chun Woon-young, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2005, 280p ISBN 978-89-546-0052-2 03810
8 Festival Everyday Kang Young-sook, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2004, 236p, ISBN 978-89-364-3677-5 03810


Since the doors officially opened to foreign workers in 1992, the rapid increase of foreigners is also one reason for the changing family model in Korean society. Since this open-door policy, the dependence on immigrant workers in the Korean economy has gradually increased. Immigrant workers in Korea now number over one million, leading to the deconstruction of homogeneous nation and bloodline myths, as well as changing Korean society into a multi-ethnic and multicultural nation. In addition, the decline of rural areas since the 1970s caused by the abnormally fast development of Korean capitalism, made bachelors in rural areas helpless when seeking Korean spouses. This phenomenon has forced them to buy foreign brides in a manner not inconsistent with international human trafficking. According to many sources, about 30percent of current marriages in Korea are international marriages. Also, the entry of Korean-Chinese and North Korean defectors, including increasing numbers of foreign students from South Asia, contribute to this social change. In other words, the Korean family now faces a situation in which it must accept completely different races and cultures.

It is easy to speculate that, more or less, this flow of change must have influenced literature. Young Korean literature in the year 2000 and beyond is the leading medium documenting and revealing these symptoms of our times.

First of all, the fiction of Kim Ae-ran (Run, Pop, Run! and A Pool of Saliva) and Yun I-Hyeong (Waltz for Three), which belong to a relatively younger generation, deem mention. The main characters of their novels, through a lack of communication or through precarious communication, are always ready to give isolation. Their daily circumstances consist of convenience stores, the Internet, temporary jobs, and small and cheap studios where they live. Their solitude differs from that of novels written by the previous generations in its spontaneity, unavoidability, and cultural characteristics.

In that sense, the pseudo-family in Yoon Sunghee’s novels (A Cold and Hey, You?) is also pertinent. The families in her novels are said to be pseudo-families since bloodline and gender do not play critical roles in their formation. For instance, Korean literature, which was strictly patriarchal, has never even imagined the family type in A Cold: the family consists of three males, two men who once rivaled each other in love, and one of the men’s sons. They live their lives in harmony. What they put importance on is not bloodline or gender, but friendship between men. Another example is Kim Kyung-uk’s short story, “Treasure Map Buried at U-turn Point.” Without regard to bloodline or gender, four people with no previous relationship to one another form an alternative family. These touching stories are exceptional in Korean literary history. The family in Farewell to the Circus by another young author, Chun Woon-young (The NeedleMyeongrang, and Her Use of Tears), is also worthy of mention. This novel raises sensitive topics such as family, otherness, ethical virtue (in the Levinasian sense) and nationhood through the life of a Korean- Chinese who is married off to Korea. Kang Young-sook (RestlessFestival Everyday) goes further in presenting families in her first full-length novel Lina. Lina, who appears to be a North Korean defector, forms families with various people she meets during her roving life around unknown cities and countries. Among them, a man named 'Ppi' first plays the role of her brother, becomes her lover, husband, and then companion. The female defector who used to work in a textile factory becomes a member of this family: she is a lesbian lover as well as companion in sisterhood to Lina. There is also an aged foreign singer who has never experienced pregnancy or raised children, as well as a childish elderly man who loves her. Yet, despite their old age and helplessness, they are not excluded from this family. When the textile factory woman who fell in love with a foreigner gives birth to a child, the baby is also accepted as a family member. These people who share their sexuality and the burden of living, such as raising a child altogether, are definitively families. Nationality, gender, age, and disability are not considerations of forming solidarity as a family in any way.

There are no strangers in this family, nor any abnormal or handicapped people. The only thing they have in common is that they are all poverty-stricken laborers. Although their members suffer from miserable daily lives with no other alternatives or perspectives, new models of family in young Korean literature are preoccupied with transgressing the borderlines of nation as imagined communities, as well as violating the restrictions of conventional gender roles. 




Kim Ae-ran was born in 1980 in Incheon City. In 2005, she published her first short story collection Run, Pop, Run!, and in 2007, she published her second story collection A Pool of Saliva.





Yun I-Hyeong was born in 1976 in Seoul. Her first short story collection Waltz for Three was published in 2005.






Yoon Sunghee was born in Suwon in 1973. She published her first short story collection A House Made of Legos in 2001. Her latest collection A Cold was pubished in 2007.





Chun Woon-young was born in 1971 in Seoul. In 2001, she published her first short story collection Needle. Her latest novel is Her Use of Tears in 2008.





Kang Young-sook was born in 1966 in Chuncheon. She has published many books, including the short story collection Restless and the novel Lina.